Fox News’ host Tucker Carlson confirmed on his show Wednesday evening that he was trying to setup an interview with Vladimir Putin, and the negotiations for that interview are indeed the source of the ongoing NSA spying story that has made headlines over the past week. This is the latest chapter in that saga involving Tucker Carlson accusing the NSA of spying on him. You can read my previous post about that story here if you like. What’s new is the fact that we now know that this all revolves around an attempt to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin and, most importantly, the NSA appears to have unlawfully “unmasked” Carlson, by sharing that information with journalists hostile to him and his employer, Fox News.
What we learned last night is significant and it changes the story in a couple of important ways. First, it establishes that the NSA may have lawfully intercepted Carlson’s emails. However, it appears that the NSA unlawfully unmasked him and released the contents of his emails in a politically motivated effort to stop his potential interview with Putin. Let’s back up for a second: The NSA is generally prohibited from spying on “U.S. persons,” which Carlson undoubtedly is. An exception to that rule exists for U.S. persons that are “collateral” to the lawful investigation of foreigners. In other words, to the extent that an American citizen is communicating with a foreigner who is the legitimate subject of an NSA investigation, the NSA is allowed to engage in that spying activity, subject to some rules about protecting the identity and welfare of the U.S. person involved. Revealing the identity of that U.S. person is referred to as “unmasking” that individual. If the NSA has good reason to “unmask” them, they must move through a detailed process, specifically prescribed by law, which involves high-level authorization and steps to mitigate any potential harm to the “U.S. Person” being unmasked.
Critics of Carlson will undoubtedly point to the fact that he was communicating with the Russian President (or more likely people close to him) as a justifiable reason for the NSA to be reading his emails – making Carlson a “collateral U.S. Person.” Left-wing pundits regularly paint Carlson as someone who recklessly promotes “conspiracy theories” and those pundits will surely point out that the NSA was likely not “illegally” spying on him because he was communicating with Vladimir Putin – someone who the NSA are certainly authorized to (if not obligated to) be spying on. Frankly, there is a lot of truth to this criticism… at least on its face. We are likely to see the Democrat-Media complex screaming this from the rooftops this week; ‘Tucker was wrong, the NSA didn’t illegally spy on him.’ However; one has to ask, how did Carlson’s identity and the contents of his emails end up in the hands of competing journalists? This is were the story becomes scandalous.
Even if we assume that the NSA’s intercepting of Carlson’s emails was completely above-board, they clearly neglected to go through the legally mandated unmasking process – the NSA just “leaked” the information to press. It’s not just a matter of the NSA failing to jump through some silly bureaucratic hoop – it’s not that they merely failed to dot an “i” or cross a “t” on some form. This is a much more egregious breach of protocol. Not only did they leak Carlson’s identity and the fact that he was trying to setup an interview with Putin, but they actually leaked the full contents of the emails themselves. Furthermore, this information was leaked specifically to competing journalists, a fact which further points to political motivations by the NSA. A journalist friendly to Carlson tipped him off and confirmed the leak by reading back the contents of his emails back to him. If this is true, the actions of the NSA are reprehensible.
This story is still unfolding and I will be sure to watch closely and follow up when anything significant happens. In the meantime, if you see headlines in the next few days along the lines of ‘Tucker was wrong -NSA activity was legal,’ and that story makes little or no mention of the “unmasking” element, you can assume whoever is publishing that story is more interested in advancing a political agenda then they are in actually reporting the news. If this was 2010, and this NSA story happened to any major journalist of any political affiliation, the entire media industry would be up in arms about it. It would be front page news all across the political spectrum… but it’s not 2010. It’s 1984.